Calgary's use of networked security cameras nearly doubles in 5 years

​The number of cameras that the City of Calgary uses to record you on streets, pathways and around city buildings has climbed to 1,141 from about 600 in five years — and that doesn't include thousands more that aren't fed into its secret command centre. The growth in surveillance rings alarm bells for some, while others say Calgary is a national leader in municipal corporate security.

More than 3K cameras monitor city buildings, transit, streets

There are over 1,000 city-run surveillance cameras keeping a watch on Calgarians. 0:55

This story was originally published Sep. 2.

​The number of cameras that the City of Calgary uses to record you on streets, pathways and around city buildings has nearly doubled in five years — and that doesn't include thousands more that aren't fed into its secret command centre.

CBC News Calgary obtained an exclusive, behind-the scenes tour of the Integrated Security Centre (ISC) where city staff watch feeds from 1,141 networked cameras — mostly in city buildings and along downtown streets, like Stephen Avenue or high-traffic pathways like the Riverwalk in East Village.

That's up 83 per cent from the 600 cameras that fed data into the room in 2011.

And the total doesn't include about 140 more in city facilities — mostly recreation centres like swimming pools or arenas — which aren't linked into the centre but that city security staff can access.

Nor does it include an estimated 1,800+ cameras operated by Calgary Roads, Calgary Transit and the Calgary Parking Authority.

The total number of city cameras trained on Calgarians? Over 3,000.

Security cameras monitor a newly renovated pedestrian underpass in downtown Calgary. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

But don't worry that Big Brother always has his eye on you, says Don von Hollen of the city's corporate security division.

"It's really not possible to truly monitor every one of the cameras in real time all the time," he said. 

"Video surveillance is really used in two ways. It's verification of an alarm or it's used in investigative evidence after the fact."

Spending on corporate security has also jumped significantly. It was less than $500,000 in 2006. The base budget in 2016 is $7.3 million.

16 monitors in secret command centre

CBC News agreed to not reveal the location of the security command centre in exchange for a peek behind locked doors.

Sixteen giant flatscreen monitors line one wall of the dark, windowless room, which is locked away in a controlled access area of a city building. The control room opened in 2010.

Flat screens line the wall of the city's Integrated Security Centre. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

The monitors can show feeds from four or more cameras at a time if wanted. Each workstation also has three or four monitors. 

On this weekday morning, only two security staff quietly monitor feeds and listen to chatter on security radios. 

But the 12 or so workstations here are all packed when there's a major public event like Canada Day or the Calgary Stampede parade.

Some record on 14-day loop

Von Hollen said some cameras are always recording, with data deleted on a 14-day loop. Those images can be monitored in real time in the ISC. 

Other cameras only start recording if they're triggered by a security breach, such as someone setting off an alarm by trying to break into a city building.

The city even has a few mobile cameras units it can deploy during special events like the Stampede parade or to assist specific investigations such as suspected vandalism on city property.

The goal of the cameras is to protect city assets and the public — not to invade the public's privacy, von Hollen says.

Don von Hollen is with corporate security with the City of Calgary. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

For example, he said, the city doesn't use facial recognition software.

It also restricts access to the recordings. Just because someone works for the city doesn't mean they can view the recordings: it's limited to certain security staff and those involved with specific investigations.

The ISC can also share recordings with the police to assist with an investigation upon request.

Each new camera must comply with a privacy impact assessment (PIA) done by the city to adhere to the province's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.  

That assessment was accepted by the province's privacy commissioner in 2009. However, Alberta's Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner doesn't review the assessment periodically to see whether it needs updating — that's the city's responsibility.

Although the number of cameras on city facilities has grown, von Hollen said putting up yet another one isn't the only solution to every security problem.

"If we get a vandalism to a facility, what other pieces can we use to help address the issue? Lighting. Line of sight. Crime prevention through environmental design principles. Use of space. Really taking a look at the whole picture and if hardware is needed, then certainly we have the ability to do that."  

Public 'probably not aware of the scale'

The public should be concerned about the number of cameras and how they're being used, according a civil libertarian.

"What kind of society do you want? Do you want to live in a surveillance state?" said Kelly Ernst, head of the Calgary-based Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association.

Kelly Ernst is a director with the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

Given the cameras are publicly owned and paid for by tax dollars, Ernst said Calgarians should ask some tough questions about the growth of the city's security operation. He feels there has been little debate on the floor of city council.

​"My first thought is the public is probably not aware of the scale, of the amount of cameras that are across the city at public properties."

He wants the city to be more transparent about the cameras, including making public details about where they are and why they've been placed in those locations. 

Ernst encourages people who are concerned to ask their city councillor, their MLA and the province's privacy commissioner about the city's increasing use of security cameras. 

He also questioned how effective they are at preventing crime.

"We know in other cities where cameras have been used extensively that crime doesn't decrease as a result of cameras," said Ernst. "Crime is related to other factors."

No red flags

Similar concerns about cameras in public areas were raised on a provincial level in 2006 by Alberta's then information and privacy commissioner, Frank Work.

Work said he had concerns that governments or police would "embrace video surveillance as being synonymous with safety and security."

Yet despite Calgary's burgeoning inventory of cameras, Alberta's Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner says that growth hasn't raised any red flags.

This is one of the many city security cameras. It is on Stephen Avenue, a busy pedestrian street. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

OIPC's director of compliance and special investigations, Brian Hamilton, says there aren't provincial limits to the number of cameras that could end up on Calgary streets or in city buildings.

He says municipalities are allowed to collect personal information where necessary for a specific business purpose.

"Putting up cameras because you'd like to put up cameras isn't a good reason," said Hamilton. "Putting up cameras to prevent crime or to monitor certain crime hotspots or to perhaps monitor traffic: those are all business reasons why you might put up a camera."

The FOIP Act also says the city must be a good steward of the personal information it collects through its cameras. 

Hamilton said that means it has to protect recordings from any unauthorized access and make them accessible upon request to anyone who might be in a given video.

Municipalities generally self-police their compliance with the FOIP Act. The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner typically gets involved only if there are complaints.

Leader in corporate security, expert says

The growth in Calgary's number of surveillance cameras went hand-in-hand with an overall expansion in its corporate security operation that has helped it become one of the best in the country, an expert says.

At the same time as it was creating the Integrated Security Centre and centralizing feeds from city cameras, it was also hiring more former police or military officers and poaching key people from the private sector, among other measures, says Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg who has written extensively on the subject. 

A former Alberta privacy commissioner raised concerns about cameras in public areas. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

"Calgary and Toronto very early on distinguished themselves from other corporate security units insofar as they right away became very specialized," said Walby.

(Toronto has about 2,200 cameras networked in to its equivalent command centre.)

"One of the major drivers is a real push for professionalism."

As a result, he says, other municipalities often consult with Calgary and Toronto for their expertise.

Cameras that are part of the public safety network are always recording and the data is kept for 14 days. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

Part II of this series, to be published Wednesday, will explore further how police access the city's corporate security recordings.


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